Nika Mühl and Geno Auriemma share emotional UConn farewell: ‘You changed my life’

It wasn’t goodbye, but an emotional see-you-later.

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“I love you,” Auriemma said as they embraced, a scene captured by the UConn women’s basketball program’s social media team and posted to X.

“I love you so much,” Mühl said back.

And then Mühl, who grew particularly close to Auriemma during her four years at UConn, was off to pursue her WNBA career. The Huskies’ all-time assists leader, she was selected 14th overall last week by the Seattle Storm.

“I’ll have to get your schedule,” Auriemma said soon after Mühl entered. “As soon as you guys are playing …”

“If I make the team,” Mühl said.

“Come on, stop,” Auriemma said. “It will take you one practice to figure out what you’ve got to do to make the team. And then you just do that. They drafted you for a reason. So do what they drafted you for. Bring a different culture to them, that pros don’t have.”

“That UConn culture,” Mühl said.

“Bring that UConn culture to them,” Auriemma said.

UConn women's basketball's Nika Mühl stands out with her toughness and stubborness, and Geno Auriemma wouldn't want it any other way – Hartford Courant

Mühl, of Croatia, chose to turn professional instead of exercise the additional year of eligibility offered to every student-athlete whose time in college overlapped with the pandemic.

She arrived as a freshman in 2020, parachuting into the bizarre world of COVID basketball bubbles and isolation, became fast friends with classmate Paige Bueckers and spent four years injecting her unique personality into the Huskies’ program.

A defensive specialist, Mühl also broke Sue Bird’s record for most career assists, thriving in the backcourt even as Bueckers missed most of two seasons due to injury. She was indispensable.

Now Mühl will work for Bird in Seattle. The Storm announced Wednesday that Bird had joined the franchise’ ownership group.

Mühl didn’t win a national championship at UConn like Bird, but she leaves having found herself and having offered new levels of entertainment to a fan base, and a needed level of hot-headed defensive intensity to UConn teams so often limited by one unprecedented wave of injuries after the next.

When Muhl entered Auriemma’s office Wednesday, Auriemma said he had been watching her shoot in the gym that his office overlooks.

“You didn’t shoot like that when you played here, back in the day,” Auriemma said. “You’re ancient history.”

Mühl smiled with a quizzical look. She soon got serious.

“I just thank you,” Mühl said. “Like, you changed my life. Your impact, I don’t think you’re aware of it. To an extent you are, but you’ve impacted so many people around me, including me. … There’s never been a single person like you and there never will be in the world. And I hope you know how unique you are and how special you …”

Auriemma cut her off.

“Are you describing yourself?” he said. “Are you talking about you right now?”

“Not but, seriously,” Muhl continued. “You’re just legendary, but not as a coach. To me you’re legendary as a person. And I’ll cherish that forever. … You changed me, man.”

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Muhl, who idolizes Dennis Rodman, was a two-time Big East defensive player of the year. Where Bueckers was all flash and flair for her offensive gifts, Mühl was all hustle and muscle in the way she approached each game, each possession.

Former teammates Evina Westbrook called her “Gnat” for the way she played. Off the court, she Mühl was more gentle, fun and personable while in the public eye.

Muhl had asked Auriemma and associate head coach Chris Dailey to schedule a game against Ball State her senior season, and it came to be on Dec. 7, 2023. Her younger sister, Hana Mühl and Ball State visited Gampel Pavilion. Their parents, father Darko and mother Roberta, made the trip from Croatia to attend the game.

“Surreal,” Darko said that night. “When you think, two people from Croatia, enjoying this moment is special. It shows that anything is possible. Those two were able to get here with their work. It’s a great family story, right? I think this is a perfect moment for us.”

Hana has since transferred to Manhattan.

Nika, 23, who set the UConn single-game record with 15 assists against NC State in 2022, has closed her college chapter. In announcing she would do on March 8, she posted pictures of herself and Auriemma in Auriemma’s black Mercedes-Benz and wrote, “Last ride with my G.”

On Wednesday they hugged as UConn player and UConn coach for the final time.

“I don’t think anybody here will forget you,” Auriemma said. “You won’t let them. You’ll be back a lot.”

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